There’s so much that this photograph, taken by Leon Neal on Tuesday, doesn’t tell us. Where are we? What is the occasion? And what on earth is this calm standoff taking place centre stage, between a police officer and a character dressed up as – what? – Deadpool meets Elf? Closely cropped, with the rest of the scene almost entirely out of focus, this photograph reveals nothing about its context – and yet the image is strangely compelling.
Even when we are given details – like the fact that this was taken in Luton on the occasion of King Charles’ visit to that illustrious city – we’re still none the wiser; the relationship between the central figures remains tantalisingly elusive. This doesn’t have the feel of a confrontation – too placid, too static (look at the officer’s sleepy eye!) – but the two are standing too close together for the composition to be incidental – aren’t they? Is there a weapon out of view? Could this be a full-blown Mexican standoff? Are the two reciting marriage vows, so serene is their comportment? Or perhaps the officer is simply pressed up against a crowd control barrier, and Christmassy Deadpool just happens to be Luton’s most dedicated royalist.
I’ve always felt a similar sense of bewilderment about Piero della Francesca’s 15th century diptych, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino. There are more clues here – we know that this celebrated Renaissance portrait depicts the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, but we don’t know who commissioned it, or why it was painted after Sforza’s death.
We also know that the composition was inspired by the design of ancient coins, placing the two figures in profile to offer ‘a faithful representation of facial details without allowing their sentiments to show through’, as the Uffizi gallery notes. Yet the landscape in the background and the natural lighting complicate this symbolism, injecting the painting with a realism that makes the couple’s rigidity all the stranger. Painted between 1473 and 1475 (more than 30 years before the Mona Lisa), what’s weird about della Francesca’s painting is the fact that it straddles a dying iconographic tradition and an emerging vogue for realism, which would cling to Western painting over the 4 centuries that followed its creation.
Festive Deadpool and his law enforcing friend (or enemy?) don’t have the same problem: the strangeness of this photo isn’t the product of a pivotal moment between old and new artistic tricks. And herein lies the oddity: since we can’t ascribe the strangeness to collage or photomontage or some other compositional device, we’re baffled by the way that so seemingly staged a setup could, in fact, be an organic, spontaneous, and unexceptional moment. In all likelihood, the crowd was constantly moving; nobody but the photographer witnessed this as a silent stand-off.
We have an expectation about how bodies should look when they’re fixed for all eternity in a photograph or on a canvas – and it’s not this. Della Francesca’s painting feels weird to a contemporary audience because it has the air of realism, but in those rigidly positioned bodies, it can’t quite break away from flat mediaeval symbolism. The Luton photo, on the other hand, feels staged – we’re used to seeing pictures like this on album covers – when in fact, it’s no more than a snapshot of a mundane moment. And that’s its brilliance: we don’t need to know what’s going on to appreciate this photo, because the click of the shutter has created an image as profound as a Renaissance diptych.